Review: “How I Learned To Drive,” Workhouse Theatre—Five stars

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by Matthew A. Everett | 5/12/09 • “Why is there always blood?”

Objectively, I know that no theater production is ever perfect. But if something is wrong with Workhouse Theatre’s current presentation of “How I Learned To Drive,” I sure as hell couldn’t tell you what it is. I think I just became a fan of everyone involved in this production, on or off stage. I see a lot of theater, and even though I love theater, I dig inside the guts of it all the time. It’s very hard for me to get lost inside a story. It’s very hard to thrill me. This production sent that little chill down my spine. It’s that good.

“Never order anything with ‘voodoo’ or ‘vixen’ in the title.”

single white fringe geek is the blog of matthew a. everett. in addition to being one of five bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet, he blogs throughout the year about theater and culture.

Clearly a big portion of the credit has to start with Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning script. It’s been well over ten years since I last saw a production of this play, but I still had good memories of it. Hearing the words of the script again reminded me why. It’s hilarious. It’s about a deeply unfunny subject, but it’s brimming with humor. It’s also tremendously full of heart, and pain. (All of this made me wish I’d managed to also see Theatre Unbound’s recent production of “How I Learned To Drive.” The script’s so good, I could stand to see it once a year easily.)

“Domesticity can be a balm for men when they’re lost.”

This is also the kind of script, however, that is incredibly easy to screw up. In a lot of places, it’s highly stylized, particularly in the transitions where it moves back through time. Actors play multiple roles. At the same time, the story is grounded in a hard, truthful reality that doesn’t flinch. Play the comedy too broad, or the drama too over the top, and you’re lost. It’s a complicated juggling act. But this crew not only pulls it off, they make it look effortless. Director Steve Bucko guided his actors and his design team gracefully through the minefield and out the other side, so well that you could almost forget how much trouble one could get in with just a step too far to the right or the left in any direction.

“Peck is so good for them when they get to this age.”

This is because “How I Learned To Drive” is a young woman’s recollection of how, under the guise of driving lessons, her uncle, over 25 years her senior, struck up a romantic and sexual relationship with her, starting when she was 11 years old. With an outline like that, it might be very tempting to immediately start pegging characters as villains and victims. The genius of the script, and this production of it, is that no one is completely guilty, and no one is completely innocent. No one is irredeemably hateful, no one is guilelessly sweet. You feel for everyone in this scenario. You feel for some more than others, depending on your point of view on the story, but you do feel for them all. Because they are all recognizably human, even underneath some inhuman behaviors and personalities. There is sympathy, if not forgiveness, doled out to everyone. And that’s a small, but potent, miracle.

“Girls turn into women long before boys turn into men.”

Jaime Kleiman, as the young woman, nicknamed Li’l Bit, takes the stage in the opening moments and holds it until the final fadeout. It’s quite a feat to sometimes be outside the story, presenting it, even watching it from a distance, and then a moment later to be living fully in a moment of that same story. As if you had no idea where the future was going to lead you, and all there was was the possibility tucked inside this one instant of time. The more I think about how tricky that movement back and forth is, from presenter to participant, the more impressed I become with her performance.

“There is no moon tonight.”

Equally central to the heart of this tale is the damaged Uncle Peck, portrayed by Michael Jurenek. There are all sorts of explanations for why Uncle Peck is the way he is – explanations, not excuses. He is one of those quiet veterans of World War II who never talked about his experiences, just kept them locked up inside. This was probably a large part of what fed his alcoholism. But in Jurenek’s hands, I also started to understand not just how sad this man was, but how charismatic, and charming, and dangerous. It’s hard not to like the guy. He seems to be the only one who really understands Li’l Bit, and her desire to rise above her backward upbringing and make something of herself.

“How is Shakespeare gonna help her lie on her back in the dark?”

But Uncle Peck uses his alcoholism as a ploy. If she spends time with him, he won’t drink. However, Li’l Bit uses same strategy. She’ll spend time with him, if he doesn’t drink. The difference is, Uncle Peck’s old enough to know better. Li’l Bit isn’t. That doesn’t mean they’re both not using each other. That doesn’t mean they both aren’t, in some measure, each other’s salvation as much as they are each other’s undoing. It’s an incredibly complex, more than a little sick, relationship. But it’s also damn compelling to watch unfold. Like a car wreck, it’s often repulsive but you can’t look away.

“I’m a patient woman. But I’d like my husband back.”

The other human relations in this tangled story are just as freighted with conflicting motivation and levels of culpability. Linda Sue Anderson plays, among other characters, Li’l Bit’s mother, and Li’l Bit’s aunt, who is Uncle Peck’s wife. Both women, in their own way, know that something’s wrong. Both women, in their own way, rail against the damage done, and have their own targets on which to heap the blame. Both women still let it happen. Kristen Bucko plays, among others, Li’l Bit’s crafty grandmother – delighting in sex and the power it brings, even as she warns everyone else against it. In the final minutes of the play, Bucko also steps in to augment the role of Li’l Bit in that first fateful driving lesson – showing the innocence of the girl right before it becomes irretrievably lost. Josh Vogen plays, among others, Li’l Bit’s misogynist grandfather, a teenage conquest of Li’l Bit’s college years, and a waiter who’s seen way too many older men taking younger women to dinner on his job.

“Boy Scouts are always horny. What do you think the first merit badge is for?”

The whole design team really outdid themselves – Mark Webb on Lighting Design, Becky Flanders on Costume Design, Norma Peterson and Jane O’Brien on Props, and Sarah J. Leigh on Scenic Design. The combination of set and props in particular was simple, but elegant. They completely opened up that little corner stage space at The Warren and painted it all black, opening it up visually still further. Both the stage and audience space where populated with various road signs, and road construction markers (saw horses, barrels, etc.). A winding stretch of road in forced perspective cut across the floor of the stage and receded back into one of the walls. At key moments, the set would transform – a stop sign taken from where it hung on the wall to perch atop a barrel construction marker and serve as the table in a restaurant where Uncle Peck takes Li’l Bit to celebrate passing her driver’s test. The stretch of road on the back wall folds down to become the bed in a hotel room where the final confrontation between the two central characters takes place.

“A girl with her skirt up can outrun a man with his pants down.”

Though I was worried the inclusion of slide projections would be intrusive, they proved to be a coherent part of the rest of the production in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The images – designed by Kyle Truss, with photography by Daune Atter, Jr. and graphic design by Travis Olson – helped open the story up in ways a simple black void alone might not have done. The sense of environment, of the wide open spaces and freedom of the road, was helped immeasurably. But the projections never felt overdone, restraint which I appreciated.

Ultimately, in a piece like this, it’s how the actors fill the silences between the words, and even underneath them, that spell success or failure. The things not being said, either because they can’t be spoken aloud, or there simply are no words. Some things defy explanation. They have to be seen and felt. The emotion that lives at the heart of this story, both the humor and the heartache, is so fully realized, one really couldn’t ask for more. For fear you might get it.

I’d been wondering when Workhouse would present another production that would bowl me over with the same power as their production of “‘Night, Mother” last season. I now have my answer. Catch “How I Learned To Drive” while you still can. It’s not to be missed.

Very Highly Recommended.

How I Learned To Drive” runs through May, 16, 2009 at Workhouse Theatre Co.’s home at The Warren, 4400 Osseo Road in Minneapolis. 7:30pm curtain. Run time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $12 ($10 seniors & students) at the door, $10 in advance ($8 seniors & students). Reservations and further information can be found at www.workhousetheatre.org, or by calling 612-386-5763.

Matthew A. Everett is a local playwright and three-time recipient of grant support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Information on Matthew and his plays can be found at matthewaeverett.com.

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